FWP Provides 2023 Big Game Hunting Forecast
Are you ready for hunting season? FWP can help. In addition to the following hunting forecast, FWP provides online information about hunting access, including our popular Block Management Program, which provides hunting access to more than 7 million acres of private land.
FWP’s interactive Hunt Planner is a mapping tool that allows users to look at information for various species, including hunting districts and regulations. The hunt planner interactive map is a great way to access our block management information. If you’re planning a hunt in a certain region of the state, you can see if there are Block Management Areas available to expand your opportunity.
Remember, regulations may change a bit from year to year depending on hunting district. Double check the regulations to be sure.
FWP’s Hunter FAQ is another great resource to help you prepare to go out into the field.
And, as always, you can contact our helpful staff at any of our regional offices around the state. They’re happy to help and can often get you pointed in the right direction with just a few simple tips.
A couple years of drought and the hard winter in 202223 had impacts on population and recruitment for many big game species, and populations vary region wide. Quotas were adjusted in many districts as needed.
However, habitat conditions in much of northeast Montana have considerably improved. Abundant winter snowfall and spring summer rainfall this year has resulted in recovery of range plants, but abundant vegetation also means increased fire danger as grass dries out.
Elk: Surveys in the Missouri River Breaks in 2022 (this survey is done every-other year) were 43 percent below the long-term average, from 1995 to 2022. Cow licenses were reduced in these districts to adjust to the lower numbers observed. The 2023 elk survey in the Bears Paw area of HD 690 was 63 percent above the long-term average.
Most elk hunting opportunities are allocated through limited permit or B license drawing in the region, except for HD 690, where general licenses are valid for antlerless elk during the general season. A few districts where elk habitat and numbers are very low and difficult to find offer either-sex harvest on a general license. Please see the current hunting regulations to learn more.
Mule deer: Populations vary widely depending on the hunting district. Overall, numbers during spring surveys showed the region-wide population at 25 percent above long-term average, but 4 percent lower than 2022. Generally, mule deer populations remain above average in the eastern third of the region as well as the areas north of Highway 2 and adjustments in quotas reflected those numbers, including reductions in HD 690 and increases in HDs 600 and 640.
In HDs 621 and 622, where observed mule deer were 70 percent below long-term average, more restrictive measures were put into place. Buck-only harvest and no B licenses will be valid in these districts. The 620-00 antlers mule deer B license will only be valid in HD 620 for the 2023 hunting season.
White-tailed deer: The 2023 spring survey showed white-tailed deer density averages of 6.2 deer per square mile across the deer trend areas, which is 40 percent below the long-term average of 10.4 deer per square mile, and 15 percent below 2022. Although white-tail densities across the region remain lower, larger numbers remain in some areas of the far northeast corner and the western end of the region. In addition, lower densities may mean that riparian areas have had time to recover.
Obtaining antlerless deer B licenses: Antlerless mule deer B licenses were allocated through the drawing, and some went into surplus. Surplus licenses were allocated through the surplus license list and over-the-counter sales. Region 6 antlerless whitetail B licenses will again be available for over-thecounter purchase, with a limit of four per hunter. These licenses are valid across all of Region 6 to allow hunters to use the license where whitetail numbers may be higher. Hunters may possess a total of seven deer B licenses in any combination. Game damage and management deer B licenses do not count toward this total.
Pronghorn: In general, pronghorn populations have been slowly increasing during the past 12 years across the region from historic lows in 2011. While some survey areas have observed increased numbers and have been at or above their long-term averages in recent years, the recent drought and long winter have reduced numbers in some districts, and fawn ratios were below the long-term average in all districts. Buck ratios were near to above average in most districts. In response to lower levels of recruitment seen during surveys, conservative numbers of pronghorn licenses were distributed through the drawing system. Those who have drawn licenses should still have a good opportunity to harvest an antelope.
Conditions in much of southeast Montana are considerably better than previous years at this time, when the landscape was ravaged by drought. Abundant spring/ summer rainfall this year has resulted in rapid recovery of range plants, but abundant vegetation also means increased fire danger as grass dries out.
Elk: The Missouri Breaks (HD 700) and Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704, 705) remain the two core elk populations in southeast Montana. Outside of these areas, elk numbers are generally low, but numbers have been increasing at a moderate rate, accompanied by a gradual expansion into previously unoccupied habitat. FWP biologists typically observe strong calf recruitment and an excellent composition of bulls.
Branch-antlered bull hunting is by permit only in HDs 700, 702, 704, 705 and the far southwestern portion of HD 701. But even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, Region 7 offers opportunities to hunt elk with a general license. The general elk license is valid for spike bull or antlerless elk in HDs 702, 704 and 705 (but not valid on the Custer National Forest during the general rifle season). Allowing spike bulls to be harvested increases opportunity for hunters and prevents accidental violations if spikes are mistaken for antlerless elk. While providing additional opportunity on a general elk license, spike bull harvest remains a small portion of the overall bull harvest and has not shown to have a measurable impact on the ratio of bulls to cows.
In HD 703 and the eastern three-quarters of HD 701, hunters can pursue any elk with a general license. However, hunters should be aware that elk are scarce in these districts; often highly transient or occurring in small, isolated pockets; and primarily found on private land. Hunter harvest surveys from 2022 suggest an estimated elk harvest of 73 in HD 703 and 94 in HD 701. Compare that to approximately 1,665 and 1,375 mule deer harvested in those districts, respectively. Hunter surveys indicate 498 elk taken in HD 700 and about 746 in the Custer Forest Elk Management Unit (HDs 702, 704 and 705).
HD 700 is surveyed biennially and was last surveyed in late December 2021, with excellent survey conditions and exceptional observability of the elk. In total, 1,379 elk were counted in the HD with a bull ratio of 28 bulls per 100 cows, and a calf ratio of 54 calves to 100 cows. These ratios are higher than those from the previous survey (15 bulls per 100 cows and 41 calves per 100 cows), but this is likely due to the exceptionally good survey conditions. Hunters should expect elk distribution to be similar to 2022.
Although the drought conditions the region experienced from 2020 through 2022 have passed and ample moisture has been experienced throughout the region this year, the effect of drought conditions on southeastern Montana deer populations remains apparent and will for a while until a few years of more favorable weather allows habitat conditions to improve. That will result in increased production and survival of mule deer.
Mule deer: Numbers observed this year on the 14 spring trend areas were approximately 6 percent below 2022 and 48 percent below the long-term average. Drought conditions reduced the quantity and quality of forage available to deer during spring and summer 2022.
The recruitment rate for mule deer fawns this spring saw a slight increase from 2022 observations but was below average at 48 fawns per 100 adults, also a result of the drought. Nutritionally stressed does don’t produce as much milk for growing fawns, and many fawns didn’t gain enough weight their first summer to make it through the winter months.
In response to population declines, biologists in southeast Montana again reduced antlerless quotas, offering just 1,000 antlerless mule deer licenses for the 2023 season. Historically, these licenses had been selling out by the third week of the season, but this year all were awarded during the drawing with none left for the surplus list. Hunters will be unable to purchase additional antlerless mule deer licenses during the general rifle season this fall. Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved changes to the general deer license in all Region 7 hunting districts that will shift licenses from either-sex mule deer to antlered buck mule deer only for the 2023 hunting season.
From about 2012-2020, mule deer numbers had been increasing in southeast Montana, a result of mild winters and good spring/summer moisture. The good news for hunters is that each good year for deer production and survival equals a solid year-class recruited into the population, so Region 7 currently has a good dispersion of age classes with a mix of young, middle-age and older animals. Buck-to-doe ratios remain good, averaging 33 bucks per 100 does in the region.
While, as a whole, mule deer numbers are down this year in Region 7, it is important to note that there are areas where numbers are strong. Some areas of the west-central and northeastern portions of the region may have better concentrations, whereas the southern third (which experienced severe drought in 2020 as well) and northwestern portion of the region were hit hardest.
White-tailed deer: Numbers remain variable depending on the area of the region. Drought in recent years led to epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreaks in many parts of the region. Most southeastern Montana counties experienced localized die-offs. The Yellowstone River corridor in southern Richland County experienced a more widespread outbreak, but, nevertheless, whitetail numbers remain good through much of the area. Northern Carter and southern Fallon counties were particularly hard hit by EHD in 2021, with a widespread outbreak that resulted in significant mortality. Whitetail numbers in this area are expected to take a couple of years to recover. Additionally, EHD impacted whitetails along the Powder River.
Overall, whitetail numbers observed on spring trend areas averaged 24 percent below 2021 numbers but 9 percent above long-term average. Buck harvest was 3 percent above long-term average last fall. Similar to mule deer, whitetail fawn recruitment this spring was below average at 44 fawns per 100 adults.
Region 7 has changed the way antlerless whitetail licenses are allocated as part of a statewide effort to simplify hunting regulations. Antlerless whitetail licenses will now be allocated similar to antlerless mule deer licenses. Biologists will set quotas on an annual basis; the licenses will first be available through the drawing process (deadline is June 1 each year). Any surplus licenses first will be distributed through the surplus list (the deadline to sign up was July 20, 2023), and finally, if leftover licenses remain, they will be sold over the counter on a first-come, first-served basis, which began Aug. 7.
Pronghorn: Populations in southeast Montana are similar to 2022 numbers and are 17 percent above the 10-year average. While the buck to doe ratio is below average, the overall number of bucks observed is 2 percent above the 10-year average.
With a healthy total number of bucks observed, Region 7 biologists maintained the number of regionwide, 007-20 either-sex licenses. The second opportunity 79930 doe/fawn license, valid only in HDs 704 and 705, remained the same as 2022 due to strong populations across much of those districts. This license will be sold over the counter on a first-come, firstserved basis, one per hunter, and is only available to those who hold a valid 007-20 and/ or 007-30 pronghorn license.
Survey efforts indicate that pronghorn numbers are strongest in the southeastern portion of Region 7 and are not as robust in the northwestern portion of the region. Through public outreach and the 799-30 additional doe/ fawn license (which is valid only in HDs 704 and 705), regional staff will encourage hunters to take advantage of the flexibility available to them via the regionwide licenses and focus their efforts in areas where pronghorn numbers are more robust (which will also relieve pressure where local populations are struggling).
Although increased winter and spring precipitation over the past year has eased some of the extreme drought conditions that impacted parts of Montana, populations of deer and pronghorn still remain below average in many of the hunting districts in northcentral Montana, most notably in some of the region’s eastern and southern hunting areas. A bright spot for hunters is that elk numbers remain at or above average in most of the region.
Elk: Hunters can look forward to good numbers of elk on the landscape, since elk survival and calf production were near normal, leading to an expectation of generally good elk hunting across much of northcentral Monta in the upcoming season.
The southern Rocky Mountain Front continues to show overall stability for elk numbers compared to recent years. The Sun River elk herd population remains near long-term average, with bull to cow numbers also near long-term average, although hunters rely heavily on snow and cold weather to move these elk into areas where they are accessible.
Strong elk numbers persist along the northern Rocky Mountain Front, and also that elk numbers in the Sweetgrass Hills are significantly above long-term average.
Elk numbers in the Little Belt and Highwood mountains appear to be stable.
Elk distribution and accessibility on public land can often be highly weather dependent, and hunters should be aware that access to big game on private land can be difficult to obtain, so they should respectfully seek permission as early as possible to hunt those areas. Mule deer: Mule deer are surveyed by biologists conducting aerial post season and/or spring surveys in 17 of the 33 hunting districts in Region 4. These surveys represent typical habitat for the area and provide a “snapshot” of the population status that is representative of the larger area. Based on recent survey data and conditions, most of the Prairie Mountain Foothill units of western Region 4 are currently under a “restrictive” hunting season structure for mule deer, with antlered-buck-only hunting allowed on the general license, and few or no antlerless B licenses available. Mule deer numbers along the northern Rocky Mountain Front are also below long-term average, as is also the case in the Sweetgrass Hills. In better news though, both mule deer and mule deer buck numbers appear to be good this year in the Golden Triangle.
The Missouri Breaks hunting districts of eastern Region 4 have seen significant declines in mule deer numbers due to harsh winters and extreme drought of past years. These areas are also in a “restrictive” hunting season structure for antlered bucks only, and hunters in eastern parts of Region 4 should expect to see noticeably lower mule deer numbers this fall. The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved an emergency measure this summer to change mule deer regulations from either-sex on the general license to antlered buck only in HDs 471, 426 and 419.
Central areas of Region 4 typically see higher mule deer fawn production and recruitment and remain in a standard hunting season structure, with either sex mule deer on a general license, and moderate levels of antlerless B licenses available. Deer populations have improved in the Little Belts after several years of low numbers and are nearly back to average.
White-tailed deer: Biologists report that white-tailed deer numbers are generally good across much of Region 4, and should provide lots of hunting opportunities for both bucks and antlerless deer with a single region over-the-counter antlerless B license available, and in some cases a second white-tailed B license may also be available to hunters. Whitetails are most prevalent in lower foothills and along rivers and streams on private land, so obtaining landowner permission early is important to a successful hunt.
Pronghorn: Late winter weather was particularly severe in the White Sulphur Springs area this year, which significantly reduced pronghorn overwinter survival and fawn recruitment. To allow those herds to recover, FWP has recommended reductions in both antlered buck and doe/ fawn pronghorn licenses this fall.
Pronghorn numbers in the Golden Triangle area of north-central Montana are slightly below long-term average, although buck numbers appear to be up slightly. Further north in the Golden Triangle, pronghorn numbers have dipped, mainly due to a combination of past drought and prolonged cold and snowy weather this spring.
FWP biologists found very high fawn recruitment in HD 430, which bodes well for the future. But pronghorn licenses for both bucks and does were reduced in HD 470 after surveys showed noticeably lower numbers there.
2023 Big game hunting seasons Pronghorn:
900 series: Aug. 15 – Nov. 12 Archery: Sept. 2 – Oct. 6 General: Oct. 7 – Nov. 12 Bighorn Sheep:
Archery: Sept. 2 – Sept. 14 General: Sept. 15 – Nov. 26
Bison: Nov. 15 – Feb. 15, 2024 Black Bear:
Spring: April 15 – End dates vary Archery: Sept. 2 – Sept. 14 Fall: Sept. 15–Nov. 26 Deer & Elk:
Archery: Sept. 2 – Oct. 15 Youth, deer only: Oct. 19–20 General: Oct. 21 – Nov. 26 Backcountry – HDs 150, 280, 316* (*HD 316 does not have an archery-only season) Archery: Sept. 2 – Sept. 14 General: Sept. 15 – Nov. 26 Moose: Sept. 15 – Nov. 26 Mountain Goat: Sept. 15 – Nov. 26
Archery: Sept. 2 – Oct. 15 Fall: Oct. 21 – Nov. 26 Winter: Dec. 1 – April 14, 2024 These dates are provided only as a general reference. Check current regulations for specific dates. Visit fwp.mt.gov for more information.